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John E. Oros, famed Depression-era jockey, dies at 87

John E. Oros, then 16, shares a celebratory smooch with Miss Balko on May 12, 1938, after winning his first professional race.

Family photo

John E. Oros, then 16, shares a celebratory smooch with Miss Balko on May 12, 1938, after winning his first professional race.

PALM HARBOR — John E. Oros, once the nation's leading jockey, found opportunity in the smallest of creases.

In the middle of a thundering, straining pack of thoroughbreds, he made split-second decisions that paid off at the betting window. In 1939, the era of Seabiscuit and War Admiral, Mr. Oros won 162 races, more than any other jockey.

Time magazine called the Aurora, Ill., native the most promising rider in years, and gave him a nickname: "The Aurora Flash."

He competed against jockeys such as Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden and his own brother, George, also a top rider in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Mr. Oros rose to prominence during the Depression, when crowds of 30,000 were not uncommon at some racetracks.

"We didn't have the riverboats in those days," George Oros said. "We didn't have casinos, we didn't have off-track betting or nothing like that. So all of this stuff was actually at the racetrack."

The brothers later went into business together, creating a tack and saddlery shop that still operates. Mr. Oros retired to Palm Harbor in 1978.

He died April 3 of congestive heart failure. He was 87.

"He was so quick to think," said George Oros, 86. "If he had a horse that came from behind, he wouldn't rush him. He'd just use his head and let the horse settle in stride. If he had a horse that raced to the front, he rated him real good and just held him in stride."

Once, at the Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, Mr. Oros won five races in a day.

He grew up in Aurora, the son of a Romanian immigrant. Before the Depression hit, John Oros Sr. was a railroad blacksmith. During Prohibition, he made his own beer and operated a speakeasy.

"We used to have to wash out the beer bottles on the weekends," George Oros said.

He said his father also ran a pair of bookmaking operations, for which he was once arrested.

The boys quit school at the same time; John was 13, George 12. Their father had begun buying racehorses and stabling them at Aurora Downs. With their father's encouragement, they taught themselves to ride.

John E. Oros won his first race at Aurora Downs in 1938, when he was 16, aboard a filly named Miss Balko.

He traveled to racetracks in New Orleans and Bowie, Md. A hungry sports media took notice.

"This winter, while still an apprentice, (Oros) outrode the most experienced riders at the Fair Grounds of New Orleans, then moved on to Bowie to lead the field there as well," Time magazine reported in 1939, when Mr. Oros was 17.

In his first year, both Oros brothers rode under contract for their father, who demanded all of their winnings.

Both brothers won lots of races, sometimes against each other. They traded mounts and even purged together to make weight — John stood about 5 feet 2 and weighed just 110 pounds.

"I didn't realize this but we were anorexics," George Oros said. "We used to just heave and throw up."

As John E. Oros' success grew, he traveled to tracks outside the Midwest, including Saratoga, Churchill Downs and Pimlico. In the 1939 Arlington Futurity, he took a 27-1 long shot named Andy K wide to win by two lengths. He earned a share of the $40,000 purse, the second highest awarded that year.

He earned more than $162,000 in 1939 — about $2.5 million by today's standards. He was just 17.

Mr. Oros was drafted in 1942 and served in the Army in the Philippines. He attempted a brief comeback in 1946, then had second thoughts because he feared getting injured. He had once been hurt in a fall.

"He said, 'You hear the sound of thundering hooves coming up behind you. If you go down, those horses are going to come on top of you,' " said his son, Thom Oros.

When he was hospitalized in recent weeks, he perused a thick scrapbook his wife had put together. It contained articles about him from newspapers and magazines, black and white photos, and race programs that look like unvarnished pamphlets, their typefaces almost antique.

Thom Oros said he will try to carry out his father's final wish: to have some of his ashes scattered at the Fair Grounds of New Orleans, at the finish line.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

BIOGRAPHY

John E. Oros

Born: Dec. 5, 1921.

Died: April 3, 2009.

Survivors: wife Ellen; sons John and Thom Oros; brother George Oros; and three grandchildren.

Service: 11 a.m. April 17. St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic Church, 2757 Alderman Road, Palm Harbor.

John E. Oros, famed Depression-era jockey, dies at 87 04/09/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 9, 2009 11:18pm]

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